COVID-19: With wildfires, California evacuation shelters may look more like a campground

14 May 2020

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USA – As California heads into a new, busier wildfire season, state and county officials say evacuation shelters will have to change because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

So far, the number of wildfires has increased 60% over this time last year, largely blamed on a lack of rain particularly in Northern California and quickly drying brush.

Meanwhile, public health have issued orders to avoid large, group settings where the virus may more easily spread, leaving authorities to find new ways of sheltering those forced to flee in a disaster.

Instead of heading to a gym or a community center lined with cots, a shelter may look more like a campground with tents. Shelters may be farther away and there may be a lot more of them to allow for physical distancing.

“It would look different,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Plans may vary from fire to fire or community to community. A fire requiring tens of thousands to leave their homes – like Thomas in 2017 or Woolsey in 2018 – may have different options than a smaller, more remote blaze like last year’s Maria Fire near Santa Paula.

In some cases, those fleeing from fires or other disasters may be separated into COVID and non-COVID places, Ghilarducci said, speaking at a governor’s briefing this week.

“We may evacuate sooner to give more time for people to move into areas of more secure refuge,” he said.

When a gym is used, people still need to be separated. Partitions might go up and air cleaners brought in. In some cases, people might get hotel vouchers instead.

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